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Giant pandas Tian Tian and Yang Guang arrive in Edinburgh


Panda Yang Guang settles into his new home at Edinburgh Zoo

Panda Yang Guang settles into his new home at Edinburgh Zoo

Panda Yang Guang settles into his new home at Edinburgh Zoo

THE first pandas to come to Britain in almost two decades may have arrived as a couple but they will spend the majority of their lives apart.

The pair, who it is hoped will produce cubs during their 10 year stay, will be housed in adjacent cages separated by bullet proof glass.

While they may be able to see each other, they will only come together for a few days a year - to mate.

The separate lives are designed to mimic behaviour in the wild and to prevent the pair fighting which has happened with previous attempts to mate pandas in captivity.

Flown into Edinburgh on a private jet, with an entourage of helpers and greeted by thousands of people, there was no doubting the couple’s superstar status.

There was a welcoming party on the red carpet, a bagpipe greeting and bamboo cake.

Tian Tian and Yang Guang - the names translate as Sweetie and Sunshine - are the first giant pandas to live in the UK for 17 years, in what is seen as a reinstatement of "panda diplomacy".

They flew with four dedicated staff, including a vet and two animal handlers, and were treated throughout as VIPs - that is Very Important Pandas.

Capt Paul Cassel, the chief FedEx pilot, said the pair were among the most precious cargo he had flown and “not unlike humans in first class, who sit back, eat, drink and enjoy the ride".

Tian Tian appeared subdued after the 10-hour flight from Chengdu in the Sichuan province of China, while the “happy go lucky” Yang Guang looked, like any weary long-haul passenger, eager to escape.

They will spend 10 years at Edinburgh Zoo as part of a global conservation programme, and will be unveiled to the public on December 16, after a settling-in period.

Their new homes are semi-detached £250,000 enclosures with caves, pools, climbing features and bullet-proof glass, that allow them to see each other.

But like pandas in the wild, they will only be brought together to mate.

Their keepers hope they will not only find the cool climate to their liking, but will become the first giant pandas to breed in Britain, potentially in February when Tian Tian could be receptive for a whole 48 hours.

Their arrival marks the culmination of a five-year project, backed by the Princes Royal, David Cameron, the Prime Minister, and Alex Salmond, the First Minister, who is currently in China.

It is hoped it will be more successful than in 1974 when Prime Minister Edward Heath returned from China with Ching-Ching and Chia-Chia for London Zoo.

Those panda's proved to be less diplomatic than their donors had originally intended.

Keeping Ching-Ching and Chia-Chia proved a "pretty expensive business" not only in bamboo shoots but in also providing the appropriate shelter.

So much so that London Zoo was forced to launch a public appeal for funds.

Sadly the pair never produced any cubs and after Ching-Ching's death in 1985, aged 12 or 13, Chia-Chia was sent on a permanent breeding loan to the Mexico City Zoo.

Without its star attractions London Zoo, immediately started negotiations with China and other zoos for a new pair.

Finally, in 1991, Ming Ming arrived from China and Bao Bao from Berlin Zoo.

However, the couple fought savagely and produced no cubs. They were sent home in "disgrace" in 1994.

The latest pandas were met by Michael Moore, the Scottish Secretary, Nicola Sturgeon, the Deputy First Minister, and the Chinese Charges d‘Affaires.

Officials from the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, the charity that runs the zoo, said it was a "historic occasion".

Panda-cams will provide online footage of the animals during their stay and are expected to attract viewers from around the world.

Their annual food bill is estimated at £70,000, and although their diet consists mostly of bamboo, they will also eat rats, mice and eggs.

The zoo will also have to pay around £600,000 a year to the Chinese authorities for the animals, which are expected to boost visitor numbers by 70 per cent.

An extra one million visitors are expected over the decade.

The panda merchandise is in the shop, more than 1,500 advance tickets have been sold and companies are being invited to buy £12,000 corporate VIP packages, featuring a buffet lunch, followed by one hour private viewings.

Conservationists estimate there are 1,600 pandas remain in the wild, and animal welfare groups have criticised the project as "primarily commercial".

A spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said: "Edinburgh Zoo is putting the 'con' in conservation by trying to hoodwink the public into believing that the salvation of pandas lies in warehousing these sensitive animals.

"If the zoo were serious about helping pandas, they would be asking the public to donate to schemes that protect pandas in their native habitats."

Chris Draper, of the Born Free Foundation, said the panda deal was a "short-sighted and retrograde step" designed to resurrect the fortunes of a “fading visitor attraction